The media had to throw out their script Tuesday night as the Democratic election returns came in during the New Hampshire primary. The print media who wrote Hillary Clinton's obituary that morning and the broadcast media who spent the hours preceding the election results asking, "What happened to Hillary?" have obviously backtracked during the past 18 hours.
But the broadcast media was slow to improvise last night, waiting at least half the evening before they could accept the fact that their paradigm (and that of the pollsters) on the Democratic side was not in line with the voice of New Hampshire voters. This, of course, is the media watchdog headline of the evening.
But there is another media story that is not being examined, and that was how the media framed the second place finishes of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
Based on the four New Hampshire polls released Tuesday morning with data collected through Monday, Romney trailed John McCain by an average of 5.3 points. Obama, meanwhile, held an 8.5 percent average lead in those same four polls.
The vote for Romney was right in line with the pollsters' predictions and expectations from the past week or so—Romney lost by 6 points to McCain, 37 to 31 percent, with 99 percent of the precincts reporting. Obama lost to Clinton by 3 points—or nearly 12 points shy of 'expectations.'
The media, however, was so bewildered in the first few hours of their coverage with the close Democratic race, and then so thoroughly impressed with the turnout for Clinton, that Obama's lackluster performance (again, based on expectations) became almost an afterthought. The night was all about how well Clinton had done—not about what mistakes Obama might have made to prompt the Clinton comeback (e.g. his smart-alecky reply about Hillary's "likeability" during what was the highlight for Clinton in last Saturday night's Democratic debate). Lost in the celebration of Clinton, was a critical look at Obama.
On the Republican side, despite meeting expectations, the media basically wrote off the Romney campaign. Keep in mind, Romney (Wyoming) and Obama (Iowa) have each won one state thus far in the 2008 campaign (with Obama's admittedly being the more impressive victory). There was some talk of a 'last-stand' in Michigan for Romney, but the media script was that "Romney lost" as much as it was that McCain had won. The media did—correctly—note Romney's effective 'concession' speech last night, but only after McCain gave one of his worst speeches of the past year during his victory celebration. But who should have been the big loser on Tuesday night, based on the expection game the media usually plays? Obama, not Romney. Yet Obama largely got a free pass.
It is folly to think a ratings-driven media will change in 2008, even with the Tuesday night shocker that took place in New Hampshire and left many broadcasters and pundits with egg on their faces. In an effort to be heard amongst a thousand voices on television, in the blogosphere, talk radio, and print media, grandiose statements and predictions will continue to be made (as they were last night), celebrating the efforts of one candidate and tearing down the campaign of another without taking the long view or a deep breath.
Unfortunately for Romney, and luckily for Obama, the media stuck to their script for most of their New Hampshire coverage. It took about three hours of Clinton leading in the returns to put an end to the praise of Obama, and a very flat and clumsy address to his supporters by McCain for a few positive words to be said about Romney - the current delegate leader for the GOP.